The first quarter of the nineteenth century was a time of high adventure for the sailors and soldiers of Europe and America. The officers were fighting leaders, the men tough, inured to hardship, and in need of a job. It took at least three months—usually more—for even the simplest orders to arrive from home. The British Royal Navy was preeminent in this time of naval bravado, with the United States an avid junior partner rapidly catching up. The rest of the world was still, for the most part, unprepared to resist the determination, fighting spirit, and technological superiority of these supremely self-confident white men.

In its high-spirited early chapters, Max Boot’s The Savage Wars of Peace recalls Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey and Maturin saga. Both describe, for example, the 1812 voyage of the thirty-two-gun US frigate Essex, one of the central episodes in O’Brian’s The Far Side of the World.1 Under the command of the relentless Captain David Porter, the Essex rounded Cape Horn and captured so many British whalers as nearly to wipe out British whaling in the Pacific. This heroic period did not last. Sail gave way to steam, wooden ships to iron or steel. Communications steadily improved, and the independence and buccaneering initiative of commanders steadily diminished. America’s position in the world also changed, and its policies and the reasons for them became more complex. Furthermore, the opposition in the “small wars” fought in remote parts of the world began to acquire Western weapons and Western ideas of liberty and independence, and generally became much more difficult to deal with.


Max Boot’s book begins in 1804 with the Barbary Wars in the Mediterra-nean, where the rulers of Morocco and three states that were nominally loyal to the Ottoman regime in Constanti-nople—Algiers, Tripoli, and Tunis—had taken to financing their governments by seizing European and American ships and selling their crews and cargo to the highest bidder—a popular operatic theme from Mozart to Rossini. More than a hundred Americans had become captives of the Dey of Algiers when in 1794 the US Congress, by the narrowest of margins, voted to deal with this situation by ordering the construction of six new ships for the United States Navy. Boot, an editor of The Wall Street Journal, recounts the dramatic series of exploits, failures, and successes that followed, ending in 1815 when the American naval commander Stephen Decatur secured from the rulers of Algiers and Tripoli large sums in compensation and the release of all American captives. (The Barbary Wars provided the first occasion on which the United States government attempted to overthrow a foreign government, the regime of Yusuf Karamanli in Tripoli; it did not succeed.) Thirty-five American sailors and marines were killed in the Barbary Wars, and sixty-four wounded. The narrative part of Max Boot’s book ends, a century and a half later, with Vietnam, where 58,000 Americans and 1.2 million Vietnamese were killed.

In between these extremes, the scale and the objectives of America’s many small wars varied widely, although the relatively small numbers of sailors and marines involved consistently performed with skill and bravery. The initiative, ingenuity, and courage of a series of extraordinary leaders allowed small groups of men to overcome far more numerous enemies and enormous physical obstacles. In 1804 Lieutenant Decatur, dressed in Maltese costume and commanding a captured ketch, entered the harbor of Tripoli; under the guns of the main fort, he boarded the captured US frigate Philadelphia, fought off its Tripolitanian crew, and set it on fire. Lord Nelson called this “the most bold and daring act of the age.” Later on, Smedley Butler of the Marines, a Quaker from Philadelphia, set the standard of leadership, daring, and initiative in virtually all the small wars from the Boxer Rebellion in China in 1900 through the Philippines, Nicaragua, Mexico, and Haiti, as well as in World War I, when he became known as “General Duckboard” for his skill in getting lots of this essential wooden flooring for his troops. He went back to China in 1927. In retirement at last, Butler became anti-imperialist and a pacifist. He had spent most of his time as a marine, he wrote in 1935, “being a high-class muscle man for Big Business, for Wall Street and the bankers.”

Another marine, “Fighting Fred” Funston, among other exploits in a varied and dashing career, forced Mexicans to construct sanitary facilities at gunpoint. “Chesty” Puller, yet another legendary leatherneck, commanded the awe-inspiring Company M of the Nicaraguan Guardia Nacional during the fight against Sandino, and was known as “El Tigre.”

From the adventurous beginnings in the Barbary Wars, Boot describes a progressive loss of innocence in subsequent US interventions throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Successive administrations were determined to avoid the stigma of European colonialism and the crass acquisition of foreign territory by force, but this wasn’t always easy. After the defeat of Spain in Cuba and then in the Philippines in 1898, the subsequent American campaign against Filipino resisters aroused the opposition of many distinguished Americans, including Grover Cleveland, Samuel Gompers, William James, Jane Addams, and Mark Twain. Andrew Carnegie offered to buy the islands for twenty million dollars in order to set them free. President McKinley, after much prayerful thought, called US control “benevolent assimilation.” The costs were high. In pacifying the Philippines, Boot writes, “by their own count US forces killed 16,000 Filipinos in battle. As many as 200,000 civilians also died, victims of disease and famine and the cruelties of both sides.” Inevitably, quelling native insurgencies overseas began more and more to resemble European colonialism.


In the Caribbean, many motives, economic, strategic, commercial, and nationalistic, came together in the imposition of a Pax Americana. In order to secure the site for the Panama Canal, rebels against the government of Colombia were encouraged to establish the new Republic of Panama, which the US recognized in 1903. Boot describes how President Theodore Roosevelt, accused of committing an “act of sordid conquest,” asked his attorney general to construct a defense of the acquisition of the Panama Canal. Attorney General Philander Knox, who also coined the phrase “dollar diplomacy,” is said to have replied, “Mr. President, do not let so great an achievement suffer from any taint of legality.”

Theodore Roosevelt’s convenient doctrine of foreign intervention is best summed up in Boot’s quotation from Roosevelt’s message to Congress in 1904:

Chronic wrongdoing, or an impotence which results in a general loosening of the ties of civilized society, may in America, as elsewhere, ultimately require intervention by some civilized nation, and in the Western Hemisphere the adherence of the United States to the Monroe Doctrine may force the United States, however reluctantly, in flagrant cases of such wrong-doing or impotence, to the exercise of an international police power.

This statement, made well before the birth of international political organizations, gives a disarmingly simple and authoritarian basis for the still highly controversial matter of intervention. As Boot points out, Roosevelt believed in military force to right wrongs. His successor, Woodrow Wilson, believed in moral force and therefore tended to intervene militarily more often. “I am going,” Wilson said, “to teach the South American republics to elect good men!” He pursued this policy in the Dominican Republic (1914) and in Haiti (1915).

The transformation of the Caribbean into a more or less American lake had, in Max Boot’s view, many consequences. It kept foreigners out. It created a considerable degree of stability and built, temporarily at least, an administrative infrastructure in the countries where the US intervened. In the Dominican Republic, for example, according to Boot, “under US direction, the educational system was revamped (the number of students enrolled increased five-fold), roads built, jails cleaned up, sanitation imposed, hospitals updated, taxes overhauled.” After the marines departed the infrastructure tended to crumble, as did the will to establish democracy. Dictators—Somoza, Trujillo, Duvalier—moved in.

These interventions gave US forces a unique training in counterinsurgency warfare and in new techniques of fighting. The first use of dive-bombing in close support of troops on the ground relieved the beleaguered US garrison of Ocatal in Nicaragua on July 16, 1927. The US pursuit of Pancho Villa in Mexico in 1916 under the command of John J. “Black Jack” Pershing provided Pershing and his men with rigorous training on the eve of the United States’ entry into World War I.

President Franklin Roosevelt’s Good Neighbor policy put an end to US efforts to stamp out unconstitutional takeovers of power among its immediate southern neighbors. As Boot puts it, “Dictatorship was indigenous; democracy was a foreign transplant that did not take, in part because America would not stick around to cultivate it.” Of course if America had stuck around, it would have seemed to join the ranks of the colonialists that FDR was determined, through the UN Charter, to reduce and finally to do away with altogether.


Of all the “small wars” that he describes, only one, in Boot’s view, might have changed world history. That was the halfhearted and muddled Allied intervention in Russia in 1918. The Allies were war-weary. Wilson’s instructions to the American commander, Major General William S. Graves, were so ambiguous that Graves refused either to fight the Bolsheviks or to help the White Russian forces, whose 70,000-strong Czech Legion at the start held the Trans-Siberian railroad from the Pacific to the Volga. The Allied expedition, landing at Archangel and Murmansk, never attempted, or had a chance, to link up with this force. Bruce Lockhart, the British intelligence agent in Moscow, believed that an Allied force of 24,000 to 36,000 men with clear orders would certainly have defeated the Bolsheviks. The Allied force that landed at Archangel in July 1918 consisted of 1,200 men. It had no hope of forcing its way to Moscow and overthrowing the still shaky Bolshevik regime. In January 1920 the American and British governments decided to withdraw their troops.


Vietnam is the last of the wars analyzed in detail in Boot’s book. He infers that because the experience and tradition of small wars were forgotten in the cold war period, Vietnam, which should have been a “small war,” was fought with the strategy and tactics of a large war, with big military units. In his view, small, highly trained special groups might have been more effective. Gaining control of large amounts of territory was wrongly given more importance than protecting the areas containing most of the population. Highly skilled anti-guerrilla operations, organized by a professional volunteer US army, might have had more success than the eight million tons of bombs dropped by the US air forces. If, as many would argue was inevitable, America had still lost the war, “the defeat would have been considerably less costly and less painful.” Instead, Boot writes, the US military leaders seem to have concluded from Vietnam that they should avoid fighting small wars altogether in the future.

This state of mind became crystallized in the doctrine of Caspar Weinberger and Colin Powell, which set out the criteria for committing US forces to battle. According to this formula, the situation must be vital to US or allied interests; troops can only be committed “wholeheartedly, and with the clear intention of winning”; there must be “clearly defined political and military objectives”; the relationship between ends and means “must be continually reassessed and adjusted if necessary”; the support of the American people and the Congress must be reasonably assured; the commitment of forces to combat “should be a last resort.” To all this, Boot writes, another precondition was added—“all US deployments must have an ‘exit strategy.'” As he points out, nothing much short of World War III really fits Powell’s checklist; it also seemed to rule out post–cold war peacekeeping.

The Weinberger/Powell doctrine reflected the post-Vietnam mood of caution and reluctance to engage with aggressors. Even Operation Desert Storm against Iraq was stopped after one hundred hours with consequences that have become all too familiar. The rapid withdrawal from Somalia after the loss of eighteen US Rangers indicated to other potential troublemakers, in Rwanda for example, that the United States would not intervene in situations that might involve American casualties. In former Yugoslavia NATO was not allowed to intervene even with air strikes until the very end; and NATO forces were deployed on the ground only after the peace was agreed on at Dayton. During the three years of fighting, a small, lightly equipped UN peacekeeping force, working under a restrictive and poorly conceived mandate, had both to try to control the violence and to bear the brunt of the outside world’s censure.

Avoidance of US casualties had become the number one United States priority, or so it appeared to the world at large. Boot comments scathingly that in the 1990s “cruise missiles became America’s preferred instrument of waging war.” In Kosovo the first priority was not to lose aircraft, and the Apache helicopters that we now see so often in the skies over Palestine were not used in Kosovo, although they had been sent to the region. “It is a curious morality,” Boot writes, “that puts greater value on the life of even a single American pilot—a professional who has volunteered for combat—than on hundreds, even thousands, of Kosovar lives.”

In his concluding comments Boot sets out a thoughtful list of lessons that should have been learned. Winning and quickly going home tends to sacrifice the fruits of victory; sometimes a long occupation is necessary. There is a wide disagreement on the definition of “vital national interests.” The words can be used variously to refer to defense against an actual attack on the US or to the need to deal with global phenomena such as AIDS or anarchy in some distant region. In fact, “vital national interests,” Boot comments, may well be one of those simplistic shibboleths that have little practical application to the very difficult decision to engage or not to engage.

Quite apart from the definition of “vital national interests” there is the question whether the United States has a higher moral obligation, foreshadowed in Theodore Roosevelt’s declaration of a need to intervene to deal with “chronic wrongdoing, or an impotence which results in a general loosening of the ties of civilized society.” In the nineteenth century the higher concern was to spread Anglo-Saxon civilization and take up the “White Man’s Burden”; in the late twentieth century to propagate democracy and the defense of human rights. There was far less hesitation about military intervention to achieve the former objective than there is today about the latter.

Boot, after reviewing the record of America’s many “small wars,” is concerned with the price of not intervening, of the cost to the reputation of a great power of excessive caution and of an obsession with avoiding casualties. In the nineteenth century, he points out, Britain had naval power to spare, and the Royal Navy protected and expanded trade, and also “battled the enemies of all mankind”—pirates, slave traders, and other undesirables. It kept the seas and oceans open, while also trying to preserve the balance of power. In the twenty-first century the United States has far greater power of all kinds to spare and should, he feels, use some of it to “help the downtrodden of the world.” As Theodore Roosevelt put it,

A nation’s first duty is within its borders, but it is not thereby absolved from facing its duties in the world as a whole; and if it refuses to do so, it merely forfeits its right to struggle for a place among the people that shape the destiny of mankind.

Boot believes that the great challenges of the present time can only be met through United States leadership and action, if possible with the approval of the United Nations.


To what extent have September 11 and the operations in Afghanistan changed the situation? Tactically, Afghanistan has been a vindication of the “small wars” technique of using small numbers of highly trained Special Forces, albeit with devastating air support. The longstanding preoccupation with casualties may also have slightly abated. But the context and the purpose of “small wars” is changing even more radically than it did in the nineteenth century, when people throughout the world began to get Western weapons and adopt Western ideas. Since September 11 the US and its allies have been engaged in a conflict—not in a “small war,” perhaps not even in a war at all in any normal sense of the word—with a shadowy, fanatical, but seemingly global, non-national, suicidal conspiracy that is based on the indoctrination of irrational hatred and is executed by unexpected perversions of Western technology, a turning of our own inventiveness against ourselves. High technology—high-altitude aircraft, one-hundred-story buildings, dependence on computers, even some easily made weapons of mass destruction—has given the disaffected and disadvantaged, at very low cost, a potentially powerful weapon against the more fortunate. The time of the “savage wars of peace” suddenly seems very far away.

In the immediate aftermath of September 11, it seemed possible that the world would come together in the United Nations to confront a new and alarming phenomenon. The UN Security Council quickly endorsed the right of the US to take action in self-defense under Article 51 of the Charter and went on to make detailed proposals for national and international action against terrorism. In the succeeding months, however, a very different picture has emerged. It is common sense that the United States should have control of the military operations in Afghanistan. But some of the wider implications of the United States’ concept of the war against terrorism may well in the end prove almost as alarming to America’s allies as to its enemies.

In urging the usefulness of skillfully conducted small wars, Max Boot quotes from the Marine Corps Small Wars Manual of the 1930s. A major objective of US forces in small wars, the manual states, in conjunction with diplomatic and other pressures, is “to establish and maintain law and order by supporting or replacing the civil government in countries or areas in which the interests of the United States have been placed in jeopardy.” Some sixty years later this describes at least some of the operations in Afghanistan.

What seems to be happening now, however, is a very much wider application of this idea. In his graduation address at West Point this June, President Bush set out the new strategic doctrine of preemption2—of “a military that must be ready to strike at a moment’s notice in any dark corner of the world.” The new concept is that the United States, more or less abandoning the old policies of containment and deterrence, will use preemptive military force wherever it sees fit against “unbalanced dictators with weapons of mass destruction” and against “shadowy terrorist networks.”

Unless all other governments were to agree to United States hegemony and complete freedom of action, this doctrine is potentially a far more serious assault on the international system than previous unilateral efforts of the Bush administration, including the rejection of the Kyoto Protocol and other international agreements, as well as the recent ruckus in the Security Council over the immunity of United States peacekeepers from the newly established International Criminal Court. The doctrine of unilateral preemption, even when it is intended to deal with terrorist networks, flies in the face of the basic idea of the UN Charter, which prohibits any international use of force except in self-defense against armed attack across an international border, or pursuant to a decision of the Security Council. It is clear that if other states, in emulation of the United States, were to adopt and act on the idea of unilateral preemption, the world would quickly dissolve into international anarchy.

In recent weeks the discussion of preemption has turned away from the original “war on terrorism.” Its new focus is the regime of Saddam Hussein, a tyrant who, although he has no confirmed links to al-Qaeda, has committed armed aggression against two of his neighbors, has used chemical weapons against his own people as well as Iran, and certainly has been trying to develop other weapons of mass destruction.

Although the Saddam Hussein regime is notoriously aggressive, ruthless, and dangerous, the idea of a unilateral US preemptive strike on Iraq, whether to effect “regime change” or to deal with the menace of Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction, has created worldwide controversy. As a practical as well as a legal matter, it is essential that any such action be based on a clear rationale concerning its aims and necessity, and also on broad international support. It is perhaps relevant to recall what happened to Britain and France in 1956 when they attempted to topple Gamal Abdul Nasser of Egypt under the guise of keeping the peace in the Middle East, and found themselves almost alone in an unwontedly hostile world.

The international debate that is now formally beginning will have to find a workable balance between the very real potential danger that Saddam Hussein may have usable weapons of mass destruction, the far-reaching repercussions of a preemptive action in the Middle East and elsewhere, the effect on the international campaign against terrorism, and the long-term but vital importance of maintaining and developing a regime of law in international relations. This will be a test for everyone, and especially for those who believe, as I do, that international institutions and international law are, in the long run, the best hope of a relatively peaceful future.

Obviously the threat of global terrorism demands a serious reassessment of the role of international organizations and law as well as of national policies; but to be effective that reassessment has to be multilateral, because success will require worldwide support. Even the most powerful nation in history needs allies that are friends in actions as well as in words, willing to provide bases and other necessities. Max Boot writes that “without a benevolent hegemon to guarantee order, the international scene can degenerate into chaos or worse.” That may well be true at this moment when international multilateral organizations and international law are still in their prolonged and often stunted adolescence, but the key word is “benevolent.” Unfortunately, not everyone now sees the United States as benevolent, and feelings of hostility to the US are being sedulously cultivated; hence the emergence of organizations like al-Qaeda.

The old techniques of “small wars” will not fix the present danger. Our “small wars” of the past assumed a fundamental superiority both in means and in motivation. That assumption is now seriously in question. Nowadays even the remotest regions, the poorest groups, the most isolated activists and terrorists have access to a great variety of information and to many possibilities for inexpensive but highly destructive action. The military operations in Afghanistan seem, at least in their initial phase, to have been relatively successful on the whole, and they conformed very well to the objectives set out in the Marine Small Wars Manual of the 1930s. But the next stage, the strategic phase of the “war on terrorism,” will require much more than stringent police action throughout the world, military power, and courageous and highly trained forces. To be successful, it will also have to be a battle to give people hope for better lives, to occupy the moral, political, and ethical high ground, and to exercise benevolent world leadership in concert with other nations. This stage will be more demanding, and far more complex, than the quest for military victory—and it will also take far longer.

—September 11, 2002

This Issue

October 10, 2002